Fatigue and the coronavirus had largely taken the steam out of the anti-government, anti-Beijing protest movement that roiled the semi-autonomous city in the latter half of 2019. But Beijing’s announcement Thursday of plans to impose a wide-ranging national security law targeting secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign interference in Hong Kong has unleashed a fresh wave of public anger.
Many in the city fear the law, to be voted on by China’s rubber-stamp parliament in the coming days, will irrevocably change their way of life and be used to crush protest, dissent, and other expressions of political freedom. The way it’s worded seems to effectively spell an end to the autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” policy.
“This is the ultimate fear for Hong Kong people. It’s a nightmare,” Tanya Chan, a lawmaker for the liberal pro-democracy Civic Party, told VICE News.
Outrage over the proposed law boiled over in fresh protests Friday, with a small group of demonstrators gathering near Beijing’s liaison office in the city, and pro-democracy lawmakers scuffling with security guards in chaotic scenes in the city’s legislature. Meanwhile activists issued calls on Telegram for a mass rally on Sunday, along with advice on how to use VPNs to evade state surveillance.
The announcement also drew an immediate response from allies abroad. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the move Friday as a “death knell” for Hong Kong’s autonomy, and U.S. senators introduced legislation that would allow for sanctions in response to any infringement on the city’s special status.
The “one country, two systems” model, in place since Britain returned the city to China in 1997, has allowed for greater civil liberties than on the mainland and given Hong Kongers the right to protest, freedom of speech, and a free media.
Critics of China now fear the national security law, which would green-light state security services from mainland China to expand their presence in Hong Kong, will allow Beijing to crack down on critics and protesters using broadly defined charges of terrorism and sedition. Beijing has frequently sought to paint pro-democracy activists as puppets of foreign elements.
“This is simply the death of ‘one country, two systems’,” Chan said. “All kinds of freedoms will be gone very soon.”
“They want to show Hong Kong people they have the power — they control every aspect of Hong Kong,” she added.
Fears of secret police
Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, stipulates that it has to implement national security laws that prohibit treason, sedition, and acts of subversion against Beijing. But Hong Kong’s government has never passed the law, due to widespread public opposition and fears it would be used to smother civil liberties in the city.
A previous attempt to pass the laws in 2003 triggered mass protests involving about half a million people in the city. That caused the legislation to be shelved and never returned to the legislative agenda of Hong Kong’s government agenda.
But Beijing appears to have run out of patience with the gridlock. On Thursday, it announced plans to impose the laws itself, bypassing the need for Hong Kong lawmakers to handle the legislation and reasserting its control over the restive territory with a heavy hand. Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said Friday she would cooperate with Beijing to have the law implemented as soon as possible and that it would “punish Hong Kong independence [activists] and violent political elements.”